Monday, March 8, 2010
Updated: March 9, 2:36 PM ET
Mean Green squarely fixed on dancing
By Tim MacMahon
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- Celebrating a school record did not interest North Texas.
"That's what we want right there!" players hollered as they walked off the Summit Arena floor Monday night, pointing to the Sun Belt championship trophy.
The 63-56 victory over Denver in the conference tournament semifinals was simply a step in the right direction.
The Mean Green (23-8) paid little mind to the milestone they hit by matching the most wins in school history, a record that was set in 2006-07. This team is more interested in something else that squad experienced: a trip to the NCAA tournament.
All that stands in UNT's way is the top-seeded Troy Trojans, a team the Mean Green beat on the road this season. The Sun Belt finals tip off at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
"After this game, I barely even cracked a smile," said junior swingman Tristan Thompson, who scored a game-high 19 points. "Tomorrow is what counts. We're ready."
The lack of emotion after such a significant victory, which extended UNT's winning streak to 10 games, is evidence of how much the Mean Green program has changed in the past decade.
Johnny Jones inherited a program that had won a total of 20 games in the previous four seasons under Vic Trilli. That makes the Mean Green's run of four consecutive 20-win seasons -- a first in school history -- pretty remarkable.
It took Jones five years to build a foundation, with the Mean Green's 15-14 record in his debut season the high mark during that span. But UNT has been able to sustain its success despite a nearly complete roster overhaul since its 2007 March Madness trip. Senior sixth man Collin Mangrum is the only player remaining from the Mean Green's Sun Belt championship squad.
This team reminds Jones of his most successful squad in several ways. It possesses similar unselfishness. It features balanced scoring, with four players averaging double figures.
And, perhaps most importantly, the Mean Green have plenty of poise despite forward Eric Tramiel being the only senior starter. That poise prevented the Mean Green from having an abbreviated stay in Arkansas this week.
UNT had to dig out of a 14-point hole against Louisiana-Monroe in the quarterfinals, taking its first lead with less than two minutes remaining. The Mean Green finished that game with a 25-10 run.
In the semifinals, the Mean Green had a double-digit lead disintegrate in the second half, when Denver pulled within a point. Point guard Josh White, who was in the midst of a miserable shooting night, responded with a personal 5-0 run. The Pioneers (19-13) never threatened again after White, generously listed at 5-foot-10, hit a tough layup and a 3-pointer on back-to-back possessions.
"We've overcome a lot of adversity this year," said White, who finished with 14 points on 4-of-15 shooting. "We never got rattled. We just stayed physically and mentally tough."
Added power forward George Odufuwa, who had 16 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks: "We just don't want to lose. Everybody on our team does not want to lose and will do whatever it takes. Everybody has bought into what we have to do to be successful."
There was barely a trace of excitement in the UNT players' voices. The Mean Green were too focused on unfinished business to bask in this moment of glory.
"We hope that we've raised the standard," Jones said, oozing humility while deflecting credit for the program's recent rise.
The Mean Green aren't satisfied after winning a conference tournament semifinal. It's safe to say the standards have been raised significantly.
Tim MacMahon covers the colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.